Cancer awareness public campaigns aim to shorten the interval between symptom onset and presentation to a doctor (the ‘patient interval’). Appreciating variation in promptness of presentation can help to better target awareness campaigns. We explored variation in patient intervals recorded in consultations with general practitioners among 10,297 English patients subsequently diagnosed with one of 18 cancers (bladder, brain, breast, colorectal, endometrial, leukaemia, lung, lymphoma, melanoma, multiple myeloma, oesophageal, oro-pharyngeal, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, renal, stomach, and unknown primary) using data from of the National Audit of Cancer Diagnosis in Primary Care (2009–2010). Proportions of patients with ‘prompt’/‘non-prompt’ presentation (0–14 or 15+ days from symptom onset, respectively) were described and respective odds ratios were calculated by multivariable logistic regression. The overall median recorded patient interval was 10 days (IQR 0–38). Of all patients, 56% presented promptly. Prompt presentation was more frequent among older or housebound patients (p < 0.001). Prompt presentation was most frequent for bladder and renal cancer (74% and 70%, respectively); and least frequent for oro-pharyngeal and oesophageal cancer (34% and 39%, respectively, p <.001). Using lung cancer as reference, the adjusted odds ratios of non-prompt presentation were 2.26 (95% confidence interval 1.57–3.25) and 0.42 (0.34–0.52) for oro-pharyngeal and bladder cancer, respectively. Sensitivity analyses produced similar findings. Routinely recorded patient interval data reveal considerable variation in the promptness of presentation. These findings can help to prioritise public awareness initiatives and research focusing on symptoms of cancers associated with greater risk of non-prompt presentation, such as oro-pharyngeal and oesophageal cancer. What's new? A critical aspect of cancer diagnosis is how promptly patients consult a doctor after they first notice initial symptoms. Here, the authors examine differences in this so-called patient interval in English patients subsequently diagnosed with one of 18 cancers. On average, patients with bladder and renal cancer as well as older and housebound patients consulted a doctor relatively promptly while patients with oro-pharyngeal and oesophageal cancer took the longest until first presenting to a general practitioner. The authors point out that cancer awareness campaigns should encompass symptoms of oro-pharyngeal and oesophageal cancer aiming to shorten the patient interval for these cancers.